Start again (and again)

Since 1994 I have been trying to publish books. Many different books. Any book? No. A good book. A book that explains what I feel to be true in the world. A good read. A compelling story. Something that will make people laugh, think, cry, stay up really late at night eating something fattening.

When Arsenal Pulp Press, in a moment of delusional weakness, said yes to Carry Tiger to Mountain a year and a half ago, it was a dream come true. I thought, this is it! Easy street, here I come! Don’t mistake me, I didn’t think I’d actually make money. I’m not so naive as to believe that a writer of the application of ancient Taoist proverbs to modern business and activism would actually pocket much of a pay-check. But I had hoped it might be a foot in the door in the publishing industry. I do, after-all, have a dozen or more book ideas on paper and in my head.

As William Faulkner once said (we have similar troubles), he could paper his walls with rejection letters. Me too. If you could use emails to do the deed. I long ago stopped saving the PFO letters. Now I’m amassing a pretty impressive file of no-thank-you’s for Blackwater.

What is the moral of this sad tale? Keep on. Start again. Back on the horse, etc.

So today I start the next round with Blackwater. Unsuspecting literary agents, publishers, be warned.


Waiting. In late August I submitted the manuscript for Blackwater to a small, Canadian press with a mystery/crime imprint. I asked that they get back to me by the end of September one way or another. After that, I said, I would start shopping the book around to other agents and publishers.

I followed up with them yesterday, and was told that they were giving it serious consideration, and would have an answer by Friday!

I’m trying not to get too invested in the answer. If they say no, there is always another. It took me three years to find a publisher for Carry Tiger to Mountain. More than a dozen if you count back to when I first started pitching book ideas (like a major league hurler warming up, just throwing everything I could get my hands on).

(Updated October 18, 2006)

Sigh. They said no. As a small publisher, they had a two year backlog of titles. They promised to send some notes about the book, which would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath.

So back to square one. I think I’m going to focus on finding an agent now.

I suppose I thought that once I had one book under my belt, the second one would be easier, but not so. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Publishing in Canada is a really tough business, and I’m a really unknown writer. But letting this get me down won’t get me any closer to publishing Blackwater, so I’m just going to cowboy up and get busy.

Blackwater finished at Hollyhock

A few days ago I finished Blackwater, sitting in the Library at Hollyhock, on Cortes Island. During my six days there I managed to edit from cover to cover the entire manuscript, input all the changes, and give it a once over for formatting and layout. Not the most glamorous part of the writing process, but necessary none the less.

Today I shipped the manuscript off to an agent for a look see. I likely won’t here back until the end of August or September.

While at the Hock, I managed to get to work on the next project.

I had intended on picking up Becoming Sand, a novella that I wrote in 1997 about Pacific Rim, lost love, transitions, and the inter-tidal zone, with the intent of adding another 150 pages to its existing 100. But two things kept me from starting on it: 1) I read what I had written on the plane going to Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and it really, really sucked. Well, most of it really sucked; and 2) what didn’t suck was so hopelessly sad, that I couldn’t face it right now. My intent in writing Becoming Sand was to pen something that felt like Blue Rodeo’s super-sad songs, complete with a lot of pedal-steel guitar. What I got was some really awful writing, with a really sad story buried beneath it.

Well, I just can’t deal with that right now.

So instead, I’m going to continue to focus on Cole Blackwater. He’s a sad dude too, so that makes me happy, and the second book in the Blackwater globally-syndicated series will be a pivotal one in terms of the development of the defining moments of Cole’s life. It’s called the Darkening Archipelago, and is set in the Brighton Archipelago, where clashes between salmon farming, wild salmon fishermen, first nations and activists are creating real world drama that Cole will find himself wading neck deep into. While on retreat at Hollyhock I was able to get 18 chapters outlined, and did a lot of the work to develop the plots and subplots. I’ve got another ten, maybe twelve chapters left to sketch out, and then I can start writing again.

Once again, Hollyhock provided the ideal location for thoughtful reflection on a creative endeavour, and I am forever in their dept for the amazing work that they do. For those who are looking for a place to spend time writing, painting, drawing, or just working through some ideas that need a peaceful backdrop to come to life, consider Hollyhock for your inspiration.

Stephen on the Beach at Hollyhock, 2008 (Jenn Hoffman)

Stephen on the Beach at Hollyhock, 2008 (Jenn Hoffman)


Blackwater passed another milestone today. I finished the first round of edits on the manuscript! This included filling in a couple of gaps – chapters that I had skipped over while writing the original text – as well as making sure things were reasonably consistent throughout. You know, character names, places, time lines. Turns out I had three different names for the dude who gets killed, and that just wouldn’t do.

This was as enjoyable as I expected it would be, and I feel really good about this book. I like the characters and think the plot is good. But most of all, I’ve really enjoyed the process! It’s been a joy to write. While Carry Tiger to Mountain was a necessary book, it was hard. It was a good sort of hard, the kind of hard that makes you a better person, blaa blaa blaa. But the writing was intellectual and emotional and at times, gut wrenching.

Blackwater, on the contrary, as been easy. The characters took on lives of their own. Their dialog with each other came easily. Additions that I made to the plot suggested themselves.

The book stands at a solid 425 pages, and 125,000 words long. During this editing process I added almost 15,000 words, which included writing the better part of chapters six and seven from scratch. It’s in these chapters that Cole Blackwater meets the man who eventually gets killed. In the first go round – which predated this recent spasm of writing – I had a hard time figuring out who this character was. I mean, he gets his head mashed in, so what did it matter? But of course, it mattered a lot, because every suspect had to have a motive based on his personality and actions. But last week while working on this on the ferry, coming back from doing a reading of CTTM, this character just let himself out of my head, and onto the page. Nice. The way it should be.

I got to add a lot of prose in this round, some of it pretty darn purple. Cole of course is motivated by nature, and so I had to have him pondering the fate of the ill-fated Cardinal Divide in order to give his motivation some depth.

And unexpectedly, I found a layer of mystery about Cole’s past that I hadn’t really developed in the first round of writing that I think makes the book so much more tense.

I short, I loved writing this book.

So now what? Well, I’m incorporating a round of revisions from my editor extraordinaire, and then I need to find Blackwater a home. Stay tuned.

First Draft

This morning I finished the first draft of Blackwater.

Since launching Carry Tiger to Mountain on April 27th, I’ve found new energy and enthusiasm for writing. I might also be the season, the dark days of winter have passed and spring is in full bloom. Whatever the case, I’ve been up almost every morning at 5am to write for two or three hours before starting my “day job” consulting. The result has been amazing. Since April 27th (about one month) I’ve written 17 chapters, 75,000 words and 278 pages. My one day record was over the May 24th long weekend, when on Sunday I wrote 31 pages and almost 8,000 words. Previously I had written the first 6 chapters. Only the prologue and first chapter are anywhere near polished. I’ve really been just writing as quickly as possible (because I’m a romantic, I call this puking the words onto the page) and not worrying about how good the writing is, or if things are even spelt correctly.

Blackwater has a long history. The protagonist, Cole Blackwater, emerged from a name some friends of mine in Utah gave to me a long time ago – Glint Longshadow. This was the name that my friends from Tex’s Riverways gave me after fetching my friends and I at the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers post a 21 day canoe trip on the Green River. I guess I had the thousand mile stare going or something.

Cole emerged during a trip Kathleen and my older son Rio took to Costa Rica two and a half years ago. During our time on the Caribbean Coast, I sat and read five mystery novels in a short order, drank a lot of beer, and started kicking around the idea of Blackwater. I sketched the characters in my head first, and then, on the long flight back to Canada, I wrote biographical sketches of each character, and the premise of the mystery.

A few months later I pinched my sciatic nerve, and this forced me to abandon a ten day backpacking trip on day four. Kat and Rio were in Winnipeg, so I drove to the Columbia Valley and hung out with my friend Mark Holmes (who illustrated Carry Tiger to Mountain) and wrote the outline for this novel. It took about four or five days of writing 6 or 7 hours a day to get the 35 page outline done, but doing this has made this current burst of writing possible. Without this outline I’d be always wondering if I was getting the plot right. With it, all I’ve had to do is refer to it once or twice a day, and just write.

Now, the real fun begins! Starting tomorrow I’m going to dive into the second draft, polishing the writing (checking the spelling…sigh) and adjusting times, dates, names, plot lines to ensure they are consistent. My goal is to have this phase done by the end of June.